SALEM — An order targeting flagpoles at Riley Plaza in downtown Salem has brought the debate surrounding Columbus Day to the City Council chambers, and it passed without the explorer's name attached to it.

Ward 4 City Councilor Tim Flynn introduced an order Thursday night to "raise the Italian flag at Riley Plaza on Oct. 14, 2019, in honor of Columbus Day." It was ultimately passed by a vote of 8 to 3 after heated discussion with Christine Madore, Beth Gerard and Tom Furey opposed.

Before passage, however, the date was changed to Oct. 1, the first day of Italian American Heritage and Culture Month, and renamed to honor the month as opposed to Columbus.

"We're celebrating them," Ward 3 City Councilor Lisa Peterson said, "and not tying this burden around their neck by tying the celebration of them to someone who's done such horrible things."

The inspiration for the order came from Italian-Americans calling for the honor, Flynn said. He also mentioned a past ward councilor who used to do the same for St. Patrick's Day and the Irish flag, a tradition he has personally continued.

"Lenny O'Leary, the Ward 4 councilor, had a tradition of always flying the Irish flag on St. Patrick's Day, a few days before and the day of," Flynn said. "Then I see we do all kinds of parades in Salem. There are different flag raisings, and speaking to a lot of Italian-Americans, I thought it would be a nice tradition to raise the flag for Columbus Day, a day of pride for a lot of Italians."

Riley Plaza, named after Spanish-American War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient John Riley, sits between Margin, Norman and Washington streets. It includes a small public park and about a dozen flagpoles that often support flags for different causes throughout the year.

"We do so many nice things in Salem with different groups, different nationalities," Flynn said. "We have a big Italian-American population in Salem, and a big area behind (nearby) Steve's Market was a huge area out there."

But as time has gone on, Columbus Day has seen mounting opposition across the country from groups calling for the holiday to be renamed Indigenous Peoples' Day, honoring the Native American culture that called the New World home prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

That concern was aired pretty heavily throughout the meeting before the order was amended and passed. Many who opposed the order also said they have Italian heritage, councilors and residents alike.

"I think it would be a disgrace to raise (the Italian flag) in honor of a person who's essentially responsible for beginning the genocide in this part of the world that happened and hurt so many," said Hodges Court resident Amanda Miklik. "I don't think he's the person I want any of the boys and girls, or any kids in this room, to look up to."

Paige Curtin, a Wharf Street resident, called the celebration of Columbus Day an honor for "a legacy of genocide."

"Many American cities and states have already legally abolished Columbus Day," she said, "and recognized Indigenous Peoples' Day in its place."

Mason Street resident Kathryn Abarbanel offered partially graphic remarks, describing acts of Native American babies being thrown to dogs for food in front of their mothers. She described this as an occurrence for "thousands and thousands of people on the land we're standing on."

"Ask yourselves if this is the man you want to be the icon of Italian heritage," Abarbanel said, "because there are many, many Italian-descended people, and Italian-Americans, who would be much more exemplary of Italian culture than Christopher Columbus."

Jeff Cohen, chairman of the city's No Place For Hate committee, said the committee took the issue of Indigenous Peoples' Day up in 2017, but the issue faded as that year's sanctuary issue started making headlines. It came up again in July, after Marblehead passed a matter at Town Meeting making the change a couple months earlier.

Cohen said the meeting was heavily attended by Italian-Americans, and coming out of it, most felt "it was a meeting where people listened to each other."

Flynn, remarking on accounts he heard of the meeting, said "some people did reach out to me — Italian-Americans — saying they were very upset."

"Just the idea of trying to change that day and the meaning of that day when it's a day of pride for a lot of Italians... I figured this would be a nice thing," Flynn said.

Being said, after hearing residents speak at the meeting, Flynn accepted amendments to the order removing Columbus' name and changing the date to Oct. 1.

Still, Gerard, a Ward 6 councilor, said she sharply opposed "having the Italian flag waving in October. It's too close a connotation to Columbus Day. I say we just don't do it at all."

Gerard, in her opposition, also noted that the city's laws offer only the city's mayor the right to raise flags, saying the mayor's "staff, her department heads, don't work for us. They work for her."

Madore said raising an Italian flag in October, even if honoring Italian-American heritage, is "still a way to remind our Native American community that this is being raised in association with Columbus."

"We also need to take the opportunity to remember what happened in our land hundreds of hundreds of years ago," Madore said. "We need to take our time to listen and recognize that pain."

Speaking in the other direction, Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent pushed for the councilors "to separate the facts" and give Columbus "a presumption of innocence."

"We have to separate online information from fact as we can based on our guides," Sargent said, also highlighting other organizations around Salem — the Knights of Columbus, Christopher Columbus Society, etc. — carrying the explorer's name. "I believe we should continue to celebrate Columbus Day for the Italian-Americans, just like how we celebrate St. Patrick's Day for the Irish. We're reacting very fast to new information." 

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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